Architecture in Kemet

Architecture in Kemet

King Djoser is a king of the third Dynasty, and the exact period of his reign is unclear, but it approximates to around 2668 BC. The third Dynasty marks the beginning of the Old Kingdom, which has also been called “The Age of the Pyramids”. And he is the one to have begun the pyramid-building that ancient Egypt is so famous for.

Quick Info

Name: Djoser, Zoser, Djeser
Unclear, but around 2668 BC
Upper and Lower Egypt
Inetkawes, and possibly Sekhemkhet
Famous for: 
Building the Step Pyramid at Sakkara
Khasekhemwy or Nebka
Sekhemkhet or Sanakhte

He is a king of many “firsts”…

His limestone statue is the oldest life-sized statue to have been discovered thus far, and it is housed in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.

The Step Pyramid of Djoser

Although according to Manetho, the first king of the Third Dynasty is called Nebka, many Egyptologists agree that it’s actually Djoser who was the first king of this dynasty, and also the initiator of The Age of the Pyramids. He built, and managed to complete, the Step Pyramid at Sakkara.

This is an accomplishment whose history and details are truly a milestone in ancient Egypt….

…In fact, this milestone marks the completion of the first stone building in the world.’

To be fair, the credit of such an accomplishment has to be given to Djoser’s vizier, the visionary Imhotep, whose work spanned many fields, from architecture, to medicine, to technology, to many other sciences. Imhotep’s genius was so revered by ancient Egyptians that he was deified after death, an honor that no one other than pharaohs were given.

The pyramid’s construction first began as a mastaba tomb, but then subsequent mastabas were added as steps, one on top of each other, to create a pyramid.

Other constructions at different sites, including at Heliopolis and Abydos, though none had the grandeur or importance of the Step Pyramid.

Djoser’s Reign and Family

Djoser’s reign is said to have been between 18 and 21 years, depending on the source of information. Who preceded and who succeeded him is also unclear. Some believe his predecessor was his father Khasekhemwy, the last king of the Second Dynasty, while others believe it to be Nebka. His mother was Queen Nimaathap.

One of King Djoser’s wives was Queen Hetephernebti, and together their only known child was princess Inetkawes. The relationship between Djoser and his successor, King Sekhemkhet, is not known, so we’re not sure if he was his son or not.

During his reign, King Djoser led expeditions to different areas, including to Sinai where he mined for minerals and create a space between Egypt and Asia that could keep Egypt safe from invasion.

A famous story about his reign talks about a seven-year drought that was said to have taken place, due to low annual flooding of the Nile river. This story was inscribed on what is called “The Famine Stela”, which is located on Sehel Island near Aswan. It was inscribed much later in ancient Egyptian history – during the Ptolemaic period.

La stèle de la Famine, dans l’île de Sehel, près d’Assouan, Égypte. By Morburre – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

As Pharaoh, one of his privileges was the he could commune with the Gods – but this also meant that he was held responsible if the Gods took vengeance on the land…

…the low annual flooding was thought to be just that: Godly wrath.

Apparently, the king did not do a good job of appeasing the ancient Egyptian Gods and sought advice from his vizier Imhotep.

Imhotep suggested that the King renew his worship to a certain God linked with the flooding (which means granting more power and riches to the priests of this God), who would then lift the curse and revive the floods. Throughout ancient Egyptian history, the power struggle between the priesthood and royalty went back and forth, and this is but one example of a power move that the priesthood made against a sitting king.

Imhotep was the main architect of Djoser’s Step  Pyramid, the first of many pyramids to be built by succeeding kings.

This is a legend, and whether there really was an actual flood or power struggle or not is not known.

In the end, the famine ended and the pyramid was built; and King Djoser was laid to rest within his tomb to be succeeded by King Sekhemkhet who was left with very large shoes to fill.

The Early Pyramids

From the beginning of the Dynastic Era (2950 B.C.), royal tombs were carved into rock and covered with flat-roofed rectangular structures known as “mastabas,” which were precursors to the pyramids. The oldest known pyramid in Egypt was built around 2630 B.C. at Saqqara, for the third dynasty’s King Djoser. Known as the Step Pyramid, it began as a traditional mastaba but grew into something much more ambitious. As the story goes, the pyramid’s architect was Imhotep, a priest and healer who some 1,400 years later would be deified as the patron saint of scribes and physicians. Over the course of Djoser’s nearly 20-year reign, pyramid builders assembled six stepped layers of stone (as opposed to mud-brick, like most earlier tombs) that eventually reached a height of 204 feet (62 meters); it was the tallest building of its time. The Step Pyramid was surrounded by a complex of courtyards, temples and shrines where Djoser could enjoy his afterlife.

After Djoser, the stepped pyramid became the norm for royal burials, although none of those planned by his dynastic successors were completed (probably due to their relatively short reigns). The earliest tomb constructed as a “true” (smooth-sided, not stepped) pyramid was the Red Pyramid at Dahshur, one of three burial structures built for the first king of the fourth dynasty, Sneferu (2613-2589 B.C.) It was named for the color of the limestone blocks used to construct the pyramid’s core.

Built during a time when Egypt was one of the richest and most powerful civilizations in the world, the pyramids—especially the Great Pyramids of Giza—are some of the most magnificent man-made structures in history. Their massive scale reflects the unique role that the pharaoh, or king, played in ancient Egyptian society. Though pyramids were built from the beginning of the Old Kingdom to the close of the Ptolemaic period in the fourth century A.D., the peak of pyramid building began with the late third dynasty and continued until roughly the sixth (c. 2325 B.C.). More than 4,000 years later, the Egyptian pyramids still retain much of their majesty, providing a glimpse into the country’s rich and glorious past.

The Great Pyramids of Giza

No pyramids are more celebrated than the Great Pyramids of Giza, located on a plateau on the west bank of the Nile River, on the outskirts of modern-day Cairo. The oldest and largest of the three pyramids at Giza, known as the Great Pyramid, is the only surviving structure out of the famed Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. It was built for Pharaoh Khufu (Cheops, in Greek), Sneferu’s successor and the second of the eight kings of the fourth dynasty. Though Khufu reigned for 23 years (2589-2566 B.C.), relatively little is known of his reign beyond the grandeur of his pyramid. The sides of the pyramid’s base average 755.75 feet (230 meters), and its original height was 481.4 feet (147 meters), making it the largest pyramid in the world. Three small pyramids built for Khufu’s queens are lined up next to the Great Pyramid, and a tomb was found nearby containing the empty sarcophagus of his mother, Queen Hetepheres. Like other pyramids, Khufu’s is surrounded by rows of mastabas, where relatives or officials of the king were buried to accompany and support him in the afterlife.

The middle pyramid at Giza was built for Khufu’s son Pharaoh Khafre (2558-2532 B.C). The Pyramid of Khafre is the second tallest pyramid at Giza and contains Pharaoh Khafre’s tomb. A unique feature built inside Khafre’s pyramid complex was the Great Sphinx, a guardian statue carved in limestone with the head of a man and the body of a lion. It was the largest statue in the ancient world, measuring 240 feet long and 66 feet high. In the 18th dynasty (c. 1500 B.C.) the Great Sphinx would come to be worshiped itself, as the image of a local form of the god Horus. The southernmost pyramid at Giza was built for Khafre’s son Menkaure (2532-2503 B.C.). It is the shortest of the three pyramids (218 feet) and is a precursor of the smaller pyramids that would be constructed during the fifth and sixth dynasties.

Who Built The Pyramids?

Though some popular versions of history held that the pyramids were built by slaves or foreigners forced into labor, skeletons excavated from the area show that the workers were probably native Egyptian agricultural laborers who worked on the pyramids during the time of year when the Nile River flooded much of the land nearby. Approximately 2.3 million blocks of stone (averaging about 2.5 tons each) had to be cut, transported and assembled to build Khufu’s Great Pyramid. The ancient Greek historian Herodotus wrote that it took 20 years to build and required the labor of 100,000 men, but later archaeological evidence suggests that the workforce might actually have been around 20,000.

The End of the Pyramid Era

Pyramids continued to be built throughout the fifth and sixth dynasties, but the general quality and scale of their construction declined over this period, along with the power and wealth of the kings themselves. In the later Old Kingdom pyramids, beginning with that of King Unas (2375-2345 B.C), pyramid builders began to inscribe written accounts of events in the king’s reign on the walls of the burial chamber and the rest of the pyramid’s interior. Known as pyramid texts, these are the earliest significant religious compositions known from ancient Egypt.

The last of the great pyramid builders was Pepy II (2278-2184 B.C.), the second king of the sixth dynasty, who came to power as a young boy and ruled for 94 years. By the time of his rule, Old Kingdom prosperity was dwindling, and the pharaoh had lost some of his quasi-divine status as the power of non-royal administrative officials grew. Pepy II’s pyramid, built at Saqqara and completed some 30 years into his reign, was much shorter (172 feet) than others of the Old Kingdom. With Pepy’s death, the kingdom and strong central government virtually collapsed, and Egypt entered a turbulent phase known as the First Intermediate Period. Later kings, of the 12th dynasty, would return to pyramid building during the so-called Middle Kingdom phase, but it was never on the same scale as the Great Pyramids.

Ancient Egyptian Houses – Layout and Function

Most ancient Egyptian houses were made of mud-brick mixed with straw. In fact, until today many Egyptian homes outside of the main cities are made of this combination. It’s cheap, reusable and convenient. People can expand or destroy them with ease, and they have a cooling effect for the hot and humid Egyptian weather.

The average household had over 15 people, and this crowding may have been a main factor in the spreading of diseases in ancient Egypt.

Most ancient Egyptians died young, mid-thirties being the average life expectancy at the time. Harsh working conditions and crowded homes speeding the deterioration of health.

Working Class Homes

The houses of the common people were very simple and plain, and consisted of about 4 areas.

Ancient Egyptian Houses – Clay Model of a Middle Kingdom House – Photo by: Iry-Hor. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Each area had its function(s):

  • The Front Room, which acted as an entrance to the house from the street and where guests could wait.
  • The Living Room, where they had a shrine for their household god/goddess and where they conducted their daily religious rituals.
  • The All-purpose Living/Eating/Sleeping Room with a staircase that would lead up to the roof of the house.
  • A Roofless Kitchen, where the women of the house would make meals from scratch, with a staircase that would lead to an underground cellar where they would store food and beer. Sometimes, this kitchen was located on the roof.

Layout of common ancient Egyptian houses

The floors were made of packed earth and the houses had no foundations. Walls and forms were fortified, with wood and stone depending on the house.

Ancient Egyptian houses didn’t have proper drainage or sewage. They would use a small area with stone slabs for flooring and walls, to put a “toilet”. The toilet consisted of some kind of limestone sitting apparatus or stool that had a bowl underneath.

The bowl would then be emptied outside somewhere, which of course created unhygienic conditions in the town.

Side Note: It is said that one of the greatest life extension inventions was the proper sewage system, because even till the Middle Ages, life expectancy hadn’t increased much including in Europe. With the introduction of sewers and drainage, and the increase in hygiene, life expectancy shot up considerably.

Roofs were also made of sun-dried mud and straw, but because of the intensity of the heat of the sun, they became rock hard and were not in too much danger during the infrequent rainfall. Still, ancient Egyptian houses probably had some precautions taken to ensure the rainwater slid off and didn’t collect on the roof – just as temples had.

Because of the hot and humid climate, windows were usually small and kept covered, in order to keep out pesky flied and the heat. People sometimes slept and cooked on the roof.

Elite Ancient Egyptian Houses

The rich and powerful of ancient Egypt had houses that were more like palaces – large, beautiful and well-managed by a team of servants.

Some of these houses were made with the same material, sun-dried mud bricks, but with more quality and design.


They had harems (which were more like women’s private quarters rather than what we usually ascribe to the word), stables, cattle pens, workshops, storage areas, servants’ quarters, an entire chapel rather than a shrine, and….

…an entrance hall, a main hall, toilets, bedrooms (some with built-in showers), offices and lodges…

Another difference lay in the décor of course. The quality of the furniture, the flooring, the embellishments on walls, etc…

There was a common thread however – first of all even in the elite homes there were still so many people that it was crowded even with all the space. Wood was very rare and so furniture was sparse.

Amazingly enough, you can still see some ancient Egyptian villages relatively intact. Even though most were made of mud-brick, some ancient Egyptian houses still survive till now and that’s how we know so much about them.

Some of these villages were made of temporary homes for workers to live while they worked on the project at hand, then they would go back to their original homes during days off or when the work is complete.

The main villages were Amarna and Deir El Medina.

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